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An Interview with Debra Winger

In her 2008 book, undiscovered, Debra Winger describes how she got her first major role—that of Sissy, a sassy Texan cowgirl—in Urban Cowboy:

“I arrived at the Paramount lot the day I read about the recasting of the female lead in Variety (Sissy Spacek and John Travolta [who had been cast as the male lead] had a sort of falling out, I believe), with a story about how I had misplaced my portfolio. (What portfolio? A cigar-smoking agent had signed me while I was waitressing, but that only resulted in a blue movie.) They let me in.

“I found the building where they were casting for Urban Cowboy and plopped myself down on the steps outside, trying to figure out my next move. I didn’t have an appointment like all the other actresses I would be competing against for the role. Two men walked toward the entrance, and I had to move aside. One of them, with rather tousled hair and a bemused look, asked me if I was there to interview for the part of Sissy. I squinted up at the kind face, and in my best Texas, I replied, ‘Who wants to know?’”

This was the start of a career that would include Oscar-worthy performances in An Officer and a Gentleman, Terms of Endearment, The Sheltering Sky, Shadowlands, Rachel Getting Married, and many, many more films and TV shows. Writing in the New Yorker, Pauline Kael called Winger “one of the two or three finest (and most fearless) screen actresses we’ve got.”

This interview was conducted via email between October 2010 and January 2011. I felt I could hear Winger’s voice in every response—she is one of very few actresses (Katharine Hepburn and Catherine Keener are the only other ones who come immediately to mind) who have a voice that’s so strong, distinct, and captivating. Winger was witty throughout our correspondences. After she’d agreed to the interview, I wrote to tell her I’d be sending her my first question the next day. She responded, “I’m going to bed early so I can get ready.”

—Vendela Vida

I.DOORS

BLVR: In undiscovered you write about how you collect old doors. Can you talk about why you started doing this?

DW: I am not sure exactly how or when I started – I found myself, all throughout my travels in life, taking photographs of doors (meaning doors, doorways, gates, portals etc. ) I did not want have chapters in the book, but rather drawings of these same things.  It was a collaboration with Philippe Petit – we shared photos and ideas and records we had kept of places visited – and he sketched each one.

I also photographed laundry pretty much wherever I went.  One can tell a lot of what needs to be known about a place from the laundry.  When I bought an old farmhouse and barn, I started reclaiming old doors ands sometimes placed them in the forest to create a possibility.  The laundry, I find, collects all on it’s own.

BLVR: How do you decide where to place the doors? How many do you have?

DW: They are stacked in the barn, although I think one has been reclaimed by nature up in the woods.  The one on the cover of my book came down off that upper field with the last season.  I have not counted them.  They are put up when I need to jump start my new possibility center (this is one I have made up – you will not find it in a journal of neuro-science).

BLVR: Everyone has different reasons for writing a memoir. For example, I read that Doris Lessing wrote in Under My Skin and her other memoirs out of self-defense because she knew others were writing about her life. What inspired you to write “undiscovered”?

DW: it was a promise to a friend that had edited my short tales for 10 years, when he was diagnosed with a grave disease.  The book is dedicated to his memory.

BLVR: Yes, it’s dedicated to David E. Outerbridge, who edited books by Liv Ullman and Ali MacGraw as well. What was the process of writing the book like? Did he encourage you to write about things you hadn’t thought to write about? Did he live to see the final book?

DW: He held the final product in his hand after he had returned to the hospital for the last time.  Just in the nick.  He would suggest some things based on smaller pieces of mine and never stopped trying to get me to write about Show Business,; he encouraged me to write the piece about The Sheltering Sky. I loved his spirit.

BLVR: In the piece about “The Sheltering Sky” you talk about how going to the desert to make that film was the biggest awakening you’d had since you were 17. You also describe hiding under the covers after finishing the film–“everything in my life looked different,” you write.

Can you talk about how the experience of being in the desert for the filming changed you?

DW: I continue to understand its affects on me.  I did in fact see it again recently at MoMA after not having seen it like that since its’ release.  The idea that something can live inside of you as a place to return to for help is, I think, the good part about faiths or, gasp, religions.  Once they get organized around moral codes though, they lose all sense of this small place to return to that helps an individual remember whatever it is for them.  I think that the trip to make this film and the life around it, fed me in a big way, but it is an ongoing process.  Sheltering Sky is a beautiful reminder of how tough the journey can get, but if you run from it, you are nowhere.

BLVR: I love the imitation Kit does of Tunner, right before she opens the door to let him into her hotel room. It’s very funny, surprising, and right on. Did you grown up doing imitations of people?

DW: No I am not a great mimic.  But Kit was.

BLVR: “The Sheltering Sky” really influenced my last novel. Did you spend a great time mulling over the pages of “The Sheltering Sky” when you were doing the film, or did you avoid doing that? Was it hard to read some of Bowles’ descriptions of Kit, the character you played–they were so often cruel in that way that Bowles could be toward women in his writing.

DW: I of course had read the book, but mostly it came to be about my relationship with Paul (we grew quite close) and my investigation into Jane’s life – because although he would never say it aloud (I think he did actually but to others) I knew that Kit was basically Jane, and I found the mixture with a little of me in there to be just the right recipe.  I don’t much mind cruel descriptions of women.  I think this happens because of their complexity, their power and other’s inability to process as fast as woman has to – to get done all that she has to do.

BLVR: How do you get to know the characters you play?

DW: good way of putting it…it can start anywhere – like the key to a closet – the key must be found, and for that to happen, a looseness has to exist – even if it is within the tensions of everyday life.  The artists I know always have an inner insanity that hopefully operates within the boundaries of sanity.  One roots around in this vast, wild, sometimes dark wilderness and eventually the key comes – I find that once this crazy part is over – the door, so to speak, gets passed through and the contents are a bit more finite – so we don’t go off the rails while ‘making’ the thing or creating the character.  But oh that looking for the key is a wacky deal.

II. FAMILY AND THE MIDDLE EAST

BLVR: In “Rachel Getting Married,” you play Abby, mother to Rachel and Kym.. Abby is the kind of mother who is always showing up late and leaving a little too early for Rachel’s rehearsal dinner and wedding. But her daughters love her and need her despite the fact that they seem to be the ones who are constantly seeking her out, rather than vice versa. In short, she’s the opposite of the mother we usually see in films who, typically speaking, is overbearing and overly concerned (especially when it comes to their daughter’s weddings). What appealed to you about playing Abby, and how, as an actor, did you interpret her actions and her character?

DW: You are right, Abby is not what we normally think of when we think of “Mothers In Movies”.  On the other hand she cannot be totally vilified for her absence: The wedding clearly was an act of will on the part of Rachel and her father. It is clear that everyone is carrying on, as it were.  Kym has been in a difficult state for quite some, and we assume everyone has been run down from that as well as the deep grief of losing a son/brother.  I guess what I saw as my addition to what was already a moving train, was the point of view of a mother who has had to roll herself up pretty tight in order not to feel the, what must seem to Abby as unending  pain of the loss.  The family disbanded.  Her role simply evaporated as she knew it, so who is to say what she ‘should’ be doing as the mother? Certainly whatever one can souvenir from such important relationships is worth showing up for, but sometimes it is precious little to build on.

BLVR: The second time I watched the film, I wondered if part of the reason Abby let Kym babysit her brother on the fateful day he died under her care was because Abby was already having an affair. That is, Abby needed a babysitter to help enable her to have time with her lover. Because why else would she let Kym watch him even if she was, as Abby explains “good with him”? When did you see Abby’s “departure” from the family? Before her son’s death, or after?

DW: Perhaps this is why some films should never be watched twice.  Attempted humor of course.

We are so mightily capable of complete denial as parents, you’ve no idea.  Wait.

Their break-up came after the fact.  Kym’s issues loosened the lid but the son’s passing opened the jar.

BLVR: You joke that some films should never be watched twice, but I do think there’s something to be said for that. There’s a film I saw once when I was 20 (Rossellini’s “Viaggio In Italia”) and yet (or maybe because I’ve only seen it once)   I still think of it as one of my favorites. It’s influenced so much of my writing–and still does–that I’m afraid of seeing it again. I’m afraid it won’t be how I remembered.

DW: I really understand this. It is not only if you see a film but when and how.  The ones we take younger people (kids mostly) to, if they are added to the mix at just the right moment, act I think as a catalyst to make happen (inside) what may have happened anyway, but we’ll never know.  I took my older son when he was just coming of age, to see Fitzcaraldo and then The Burden of Dreams.  I thought I would show him the difficulties and insanity of filmmaking.  He had been on sets for most of his young life, exotic locations, rough shoots, so I thought I would be able to insure his desires in another direction, not make it the “family business.”

He made his first film in college, and now is a self-supporting filmmaker.

BLVR: Do you give him any advice about working with the people he’s filming (I know he primarily does documentaries so he’s not working with actors)?

DW: I answer direct questions – but the older they get, the more a parent can hear the sound of eyes rolling up into the head when unasked for advice is given.  Noah (Hutton) has a natural aptitude for making people feel comfortable in his presence – he is very non-judgmental – and that is so much of directing. Another chunk is the ability to inspire and help someone to trust their instincts and imagination.  I don’t think this stuff can really be taught – I observe that he is finding his way rather nicely without very much help from me!

BLVR: You have a number of producing credits. Are you still involved and interested in production?

DW: Yes, I produce, but it is only when hog-tied.  I did recently produce a documentary on the ills of gas drilling in the U.S. that had a run on HBO called GASLAND, but that’s different, isn’t it?

Big Bad Love was a film based (incredibly loosely) on some short stories by Larry Brown (may he rest) and my husband Arliss adapted, directed and starred in it.  I line produced, not exec. produced and it was hair-raising to say the least.  But that which does not kill you, just kicks the shit out of you.

I would do it again with more knowledge of who to hire for certain things, like negotiating with unions and hauling the garbage at night.

BLVR: This past weekend you interviewed Sayed Kashua for a film festival. How did the interview go? Did interviewing him make you wish there were any questions in particular I would ask you?

DW: Well no, I don’t think it really went that well.  The audience was ill-placed in a lobby area, the chairs were the kind you sink into so only the first row could see, and it was a bunch of upper west side lefty Jews who think they all know about Sayed’s ‘problems’ already!  It was kind of nightmarish.  We just went out and got drunk afterwards so that was fine.  It didn’t actually make me think of anything except no wonder there will never be peace in the mid east… look at the upper west!

BLVR: Oh no! Well, at least you got drunk afterwards.

Have you long been a reader/admirer of Kashua’s work (I’m wondering how the Jewish Film Festival knew to ask you to be an interviewer)?

DW: The reason the Film Festival knew we were friends was that a few years back we found ourselves as fellow jurors at the Jerusalem Film Festival and just hit it off.  As it turns out, I also unofficially sit on the board of Hand-In-Hand, a co-educational multi-lingual school that Sayed, whilst living in East Jerusalem, decided to send his 2 kids to.  We also share a sick sense of humor about the middle east dilemma that can be best experienced by watching his successful series entitled : Avodah Aravit (Arab Work) a sort of Curb Your Enthusiasm for Israeli Arabs.

BLVR: How in the world did you get involved with a school in East Jerusalem?

DW: Yes, well, we all have our pockets of the world that we insinuate ourselves into , hoping to be part of some healing process–not to sound too new-speaky.

BLVR: Have you spent time there?

DW: Yes, I have been visiting the Middle East (Israel, Jordan and Egypt) since 1972.  I have only been involved with Hand In Hand for a few years though.

BLVR: Are you actively religious (whatever that means)?

DW: What DOES that mean (although I like the sound of ‘actively religious’ – it invokes nuns in basements of cloistered convents and self-flagellation and marches for mosques and the wrapping of leather cords around one’s left arm.  Well, those were just the first three I thought of…

I am interested in ancient text as a way to see our story, as humans.  I will pretty much study anything of this sort, although I find the Lutheran stuff a bit impenetrable.  I consider Sufiism and Judaism as my primary studies.  Then there are practices.  In the modern world, I think this aspect of religious belief usually gets relegated to church going or holiday celebration, which is okay but I like to think of a daily practice as something that lives in your heart as a question one can pursue through everything in the day.  Rumi is a master of this.  Yoga Sutras has some beautiful things.  The Torah is a wonderful jumping off point as well.

III.  LUNAR ECLIPSE

BLVR: I recently rewatched “Terms of Endearment” and was really floored by the scene in which you and your husband in the film (played by Jeff Daniels) are laying on a mattress in a new home, with clothes on, and imitate what the other person sounds like when having sex. I thought it was both a new approach to showing intimacy, and much more beautiful and revelatory than many sex scenes in which actors are actually naked and (supposed to be) having intercourse. Do you remember anything about the filming of that scene? Was everything written into the script–even the sounds the other person would make?

DW: Funny, this question, because just the other day (quite randomly) Arliss was asking me about “Here Comes The Bride” – which was the part that was scripted – of course not HOW it would be sung nor the sounds could be, but the suggestions were all right to inspire – and isn’t that what a great script does – inspires the actor to find the place and live in it.

BLVR: Was it a good experience, making that film? It’s so interesting to look back on it now because one realizes it really was the beginning of the cancer films. I can’t think of m(any) films that approached the topic before “Terms of Endearment.”

DW: The film was a good experience – deep and all encompassing – but not easy, of course.  Big personalities and a lot of ground to cover.  But the other day I was dropping my in-laws off at Penn Station and there on the platform, stooped John Lithgow – we ran to each other’s arms and I said oh my god I can’t believe how long it has been and he said, …yesterday.  That is always how it feels in these heightened realities.  Ultimately ephemeral – but always like yesterday.

As far as the cancer aspect goes…I don’t know.  Yes, in a way, the whole thing Jim tried to address was how one couldn’t speak of it openly – the stigma attached was greater – but only in certain contexts.  I later did another role where I had to visit that place, “Shadowlands” and it was handled quite differently.  I always say in answer to comments on the subject – that I wish cancer had only touched my life as many times as I have portrayed it in film.  The ration unfortunately, in life, is much greater.

Bernardo Bertolucci is in NY now for a retrospective of his work at MoMA and I have been steeped in The Sheltering Sky.  And all things Bernardo.  It is amazing really how our art shapes our lives.  Talking to Patti Smith at a party the other night, I realized that we come to this place (us women over 50) when we do not want to look at our lives and our work particularly as a ‘story’ but for others, it often is.  The trick is to keep turning, turning, one degree at a time -Last night I stayed up all night to watch the Lunar Eclipse.  I hope I can remember how vivid the thought I had was – there was the earth…precisely lined up between it’s light and it’s moon.  I hope I never get in the way of my light for longer than a night!

BLVR: I loved Smith’s memoir, “Just Kids.” It made me want to be young and living my twenties in New York all over again. I think I miss the way time appeared to me then: time was a large ethereal and iridescent swath of fabric I could cut and stitch around me in whatever way I saw fit.

DW: I think the raising of children makes one feel like that time is behind you – but I sense this coming out of the other side of that now, and that is something that we actually spoke about that night – so hang in there!

BLVR: And at the same time, reading “Just Kids”  made me want to be older than I am and be able to reflect on my twenties with distance and perspective. When you look back on your life so far what amazes you or bothers you or surprises you?

DW: Well I don’t see it as looking ‘back’ on my life as much as ‘looking into’ my life – because the headiness of what happened to me so early – and I believe I use the term correctly, forbade that sort of deep reflection.  I did okay I think, in the catching up category, by taking the time I did with my boys.  But now I do feel this retro-rocket being fired off; and as I watched the eclipse (re-referencing!) the other night, I felt that at the penumbra, both sides of the actual eclipse were amazing – the same amount of light and darkness just going from one side to the other – passing of course through the middle.  So I felt a real boost from that image.

BLVR: I’m fascinated by your observation that others want to make a story out of your life–and that the way to avoid that is to keep turning. And I suppose that in your case part of the story that has been woven is that here was this incredibly talented and successful actor who decided to stop working. But how conscious were you of that story taking shape when you decided to do other things than act? Do you see the story of your life following a different narrative than the one that you feel has been constructed by, say, the documentary “Searching for Debra Winger”? Do you feel that working again has been a part of that “turning”?

DW” I refuse to spend anymore time on what felt like the outside looking in.  Once some sort of fame or notoriety happens, one can often feel as if your name is co-opted as a commodity.  I, of course am not a ‘thing’ but the name Debra Winger sort of is.  So, I have many other names by which I call myself.  And I DO feel that working will be part of my turning.  If others do not see fit to give me a place (since I don’t really MAKE movies), I will find out what the next thing I might be able to feel creatively about – but I do hope to act.

BLVR: How you tap into your characters’ sexuality. All the women you’ve played possess such a vibrant but unique sexuality. I watched URBAN COWBOY and an OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN back-to-back and thought it was so interesting how different the characters’ sexual energies were. I think a lesser actress might just find one way of approaching seductiveness on the screen and stick to what works, but it strikes me that you go deeper than that.

DW: I think sexual energy, in it’s pure form, IS somewhat similar, but who operates from that pure place on a daily basis?  And especially in love?  The falling, I think comes from that place, and we hopefully spend a nice bit of time luxuriating in the bliss of that freedom.  But when the world does move in on it, we can only return it seems, in times of crisis or moments when we glimpse the infinite again.  Most stories take place when we are struggling with our most human qualities and I love movies that show these sides of ourselves to us.  Both the women you mentioned, Sissy and Paula are at that stage of discovering their own sexuality and bringing it into the expression of themselves in life.  I cannot imagine a character that is not struggling in some way with this piece of the ahem, pie.  Stick around, it gets even more interesting!

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